Pittsburgh Pushes for More Public Transportation

The Regional Transportation Alliance received nearly 340 responses to its crowdsourcing survey, and the top suggestion in each county was to improve public transit.

by Ed Blazina, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / July 11, 2016

(TNS) -- A public-private partnership is expected to have recommendations for transportation improvements in the 10-county area by the end of the year, but a crowdsourcing survey shows a strong interest in one particular area: more public transit.

The Regional Transportation Alliance asked 800 groups what transportation changes would make the biggest difference for their clients or members.

The agency got about 340 responses and the top suggestion in each county was to improve public transit, which was mentioned by 46 percent of all respondents and had the highest percentage in each county.

“I think this was a real surprise,” said Ken Zapinski, senior vice president for energy and infrastructure for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, who serves as staff for the alliance. “If we had data like this in the Act 89 discussion, we may have been able to make a better argument [for more transit funding].”

The alliance released the results of the survey last week in advance of a forum it is holding Monday called, “Future of Mobility.” The forum, from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Kelly Strahorn Theater in East Liberty, will feature panel discussions on self-driving vehicles and how technology can be used to improve mobility.

The alliance is an outgrowth of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, the 10-county agency that reviews transportation projects. After Pennsylvania passed a transportation funding program, Act 89, in 2013 to upgrade existing roads, bridges and public transportation, the commission suggested a similar regional group be formed to recommend new transportation initiatives.

The Allegheny Conference on Community Development provides the staff for the RTA, which has one government and one community representative from each county. Those counties are Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Indiana, Greene, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland.

The co-chairmen are Steve Craig, a Lawrence County commissioner, and Brian Heery, president and CEO of Mitsubishi Electric Power Products Inc. of Butler.

The alliance is expected to release its suggestions by the end of the year in a report called “Imagine Transportation 1.0,” which Mr. Zapinski said will be the first step toward a regional plan.

The survey, which identified 17 different areas of interest, is one tool the group will use to formulate its recommendations.

Mr. Zapinski said one unexpected result of the survey is the number of groups that said they need transportation improvements to meet basic needs such as obtaining food and health-care, as well as connecting with educational institutions and job sites.

“That’s one of the surprising things — that there are people who have basic needs the [transportation] system isn’t meeting,” he said.

One challenge the group faces is the differences among the 10 counties, which range from the urban and suburban Allegheny to the more rural Greene and Armstrong. It’s unlikely there will be a one-size-fits-all proposal, he said.

“The mobility challenges are different, so maybe the solutions are different, too,” he said.

Mr. Craig noted the issues are similar no matter what county is involved.

“The issue really isn’t a bricks-and-mortar issue. It’s about mobility,” he said. “The issues are how do you access meals, jobs and education.”

The year-end report will be the starting point for a final plan, Mr. Zapinski said.

“Here’s a set of goals and ideas we think should be considered. What do you think?” he said. “Really, it’s an on-going discussion until people are enthusiastic enough to move forward.”

Monday’s forum is designed to present options that have been tried elsewhere to see if they can be used here. For example, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority in the Philadelphia area is subsidizing Uber rides to feed its commuter rail service, and the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority has joined with Bridj for an on-demand van service.

“This is to start people thinking,” Mr. Zapinski said.

“You can’t answer all of the questions in one afternoon. The idea is to take it back to their daily lives and think about what might work here.”

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